Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Striking times

As the world of work changes, unions are waking up to the vast challenges facing younger people, says Jack May

Liz Truss’s Instagram is far too close to a piece of absurdist piece of performance art for comfort. Alongside wholesome shots of country life in her South West Norfolk constituency, the chief secretary to the Treasury’s feed sees candid images of her at her desk vie for attention with potentially rule-breaking frontbench selfies in the House of Commons.

Get stuck into the narrative, though, and you notice the repetition of a particular set of verbal tics that Truss has been working on for a few months now. Back in February, I surreptitiously infiltrated a Tory-riven event hosted by the thinktank Bright Blue at a pub in Southwark, where she appeared at their ‘Drink Tank’ series to share her wisdom about how to make conservatism #hip again. The catchphrases she churned out before tucking into a drink have kept coming up since.

‘This generation are #Uber-riding #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters’, she tweeted about a month later. In early April, she posted an Instagram from a jaunt to Brazil, captioned: ‘Sao Paolo is a teeming, insta-loving, uber-riding megalopolis’, deftly side-stepping the fact that it is a the largest city in a country marred by corruption and violence that has only seen its previously stratospheric crime rate drop thanks to greater law enforcement and stricter gun control laws, not some adrenalin-shot dose of ‘freedom’.

At the end of the same month, just ahead of the local elections, she wrote in the Telegraph that voters should ‘pick up their flat whites’ and vote Conservative ‘from the coffee bars of Camden to the gin joints of Norfolk’.

Sadly for her that did not quite work – Labour got their best result in 20 years in Norwich City council and Labour’s share of the vote in Camden tipped over 50 per cent for the first time since 1994 – but it reveals an emerging Tory narrative. A narrative for which Truss has tried to pitch herself as the best-food-forward flag-bearer: the young love the gig economy, are uncritical stans of ‘freedom’ (whatever that is, anyway), and definitely want more apps with dubious records on workers’ pay and conditions to take over their lives without a second thought.

It might not be a good a take, but it is a take at the very least, and one that the left – of all stripes and varieties – has been pretty slow to rebuff.

Unions have always been about freedom. The collective fight for workers’ rights is about emancipating all of us from the limitations that restrict us.

Collective bargaining is intended to give those without significant financial or political power the possibility of freedom: freedom from chronic low pay; freedom from exorbitantly long hours; freedom from treacherous working conditions; freedom from intimidation and harassment from wayward bosses; and the freedom to get sick, grieve for a relative or to parent children without worrying about losing their jobs.

The fight for that freedom, led by our unions for 150 years – the TUC celebrates its 150th anniversary this week – is more complicated, but no less important, now.

As the TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady told The Guardian this week, ‘business models have radically changed. Unions have to change too – change or die.’ The challenges to the union movement at a time when membership overall is falling and membership among the under-30s has collapsed to just 15 per cent are immense, as ‘gig economy’ apps and employers such as Uber and Deliveroo jostle with zero-hours contract providers such as JJB Sports for the accolade of ‘worst employer’. The TUC’s new report further shows that the gap between the earnings of over and under-30s has grown by 50 per cent in the past 20 years – the fight is on.

Luckily, the TUC is alive to these challenges – creating a digital platform that has already attracted 1,000 members, with an app to follow – but more must be done on all sides if younger people are to enjoy the same protections, pay, and rights that older workers have benefited from.

Labour must muscle in, diverting its new-found funds accrued through surging membership from the wasteful vanity project of JezFest to the work of supporting and promoting the work of unions to reach out to younger workers, and in particular those in the private sector, which employs 80 per cent of 21-30-year-olds, but where only 9 per cent are union members.

To stave off a crisis whereby a ‘lost generation’ of young people lose out on owning a home, getting a decent pay packet, and work sporadic hours at someone else’s whim, Labour and the union movement must put every effort into bolstering unions – making them relevant to young people’s experiences, nimble enough to help fight our battles, and forward-thinking enough to embrace the freedoms we deserve while fighting the unfairness we hate.

The posturing, party-political dinosaurs that plague certain unions – and who shall remain nameless – must not be allowed to block fresh pragmatic talent; those who understand how the working world is changing and want to embrace that opportunity while making it work for everyone.

Unions, though so often far-removed from most of my generation’s lives, have seldom been more needed. The young will not thank the left for leaving them behind if their rights are not protected.


Jack May is a Progress columnist. He tweets at @JackO_May


Photo: by shopblocks, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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